- Ghani had been under intense pressure not to visit even though he was co-hosting
- Sources say he attended despite no progress from Pak because of pressures from donor countries in the West, and China
Afghan political advisers warned President Ashraf Ghani not to smile when he came to Islamabad on Wednesday, but he soon found it hard not to, The New York Time said in a story on Wednesday.
As the Afghan president stepped off his plane at the airport, he appeared surprised to discover that the greeting party far exceeded the demands of protocol: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country’s military chiefs were on hand, along with many other dignitaries, while an honour guard blasted a 21-gun salute.
It was the sort of welcome normally reserved for prominent allies, like the president of China or the king of Saudi Arabia, not for the leader of the neighbouring country with which Pakistan has been in a war of words for a long time — a war which has taken a turn for the worse in recent months.
Ghani had been under intense pressure not to visit, even though he was the co-host, with Pakistan, of the Heart of Asia conference, an annual gathering of officials from Asian and other countries. The meeting was billed as an attempt to promote economic and security cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours, and was set to be attended by officials from every country in South and Central Asia.
The warm welcome was a clear measure that Pakistan wants to mend the broken relationship. Ghani smiled a bit and thanked Sharif profusely for the warm welcome, as many Afghans watched his arrival on television.
But in a speech shortly after he reiterated criticism that Pakistan had failed to deprive the Taliban of a safe haven on Pakistani soil.
“We are fighting on behalf of all of you, but we are the ones who are suffering some of the worst atrocities,” Ghani said.
A Facebook post by Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief of Afghanistan and an ardent critic of Pakistan, was representative of views expressed in his country on the eve of the visit.
“Any member of the Afghan delegation who is found smiling in individual or group photos in the Islamabad conference will be degrading the blood of our 8,000 casualties in 2015,” Saleh said. He was apparently referring to Afghan police and military fatalities, which have increased greatly this year.
Ghani suffered a major political setback when he announced plans earlier this year to repair relations with Pakistan, and an effort to bring about peace talks, which Islamabad has made clear it is willing to facilitate.
Then over the summer, the Afghans discovered that the Pakistanis were arranging for them to negotiate with a dead man, as news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar had been dead for two years.
Many felt the leak was a deliberate move by the country’s National Directorate of Security, which, like Saleh, has long opposed better relations with Pakistan. Scuttling the talks led Ghani to reject his earlier efforts to reconcile with Pakistan. Only in recent weeks have there been tentative steps to restart peace talks with the Taliban, a process for which Afghanistan’s Western allies believe that Pakistan is crucial.
Ghani’s government had demanded but failed to receive a series of guarantees from Pakistan before resuming warmer relations, a development that created pressure to skip the one-day conference.
The exact demands are not known, but they are believed to include guarantees to remove Taliban havens in Pakistan, measures to improve the treatment of Afghan refugees, and a pledge to refuse to treat wounded Taliban in Pakistani hospitals.
The United States government pressed hard for Ghani not to boycott the meeting. Some Afghan officials felt their leader had no choice, considering the strong pressure from its allies.
“His attendance, despite not seeing any progress from Pakistan, suggests that there are pressures from donor countries in the West, and China, which he has to answer to,” said Abdul Qayoum Sajjadi, a member of the foreign relations committee of the Afghan Parliament.